Falling Leaf gets one more shot in Seattle

ON THE NFL

Pro Football

May 26, 2002|By Ken Murray

Ryan Leaf is running out of time and teams. Once regarded as a franchise quarterback in the NFL, he is now viewed as a salvage-operation project.

Once the second pick in the 1998 draft behind Peyton Manning, Leaf is fighting to win the Seattle Seahawks' third-string job against the likes of seventh-round draft pick Jeff Kelly and free-agent rookie Ryan Van Dyke.

Worse yet, he's no guarantee to win that third-string job.

Seattle is Leaf's fourth team in 15 months. His monumental flop in San Diego cost the Chargers more than $12 million and sent general manager Bobby Beathard into a premature retirement (Beathard only resurfaced this month as an adviser with the Atlanta Falcons). The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a look and decided to keep third-stringer Joe Hamilton over Leaf.

The Dallas Cowboys signed him last season, gave him three starts (all losses) and then invested a $3.1 million signing bonus in Chad Hutchinson as their quarterback of the future. Hutchinson, who hadn't played football since his sophomore year at Stanford in 1997, will be No. 2 behind Quincy Carter this season.

Seattle coach Mike Holmgren is the latest to attempt a resuscitation of Leaf's limp career. The NFL is reluctant to give up on perceived talent, even when it is a colossal bust like Leaf. But the signs of failure were there right from the beginning. Listen to what one AFC personnel man had to say about the first two picks in the 1998 draft:

"The year Peyton Manning came out, I met him during two-a-days [at Tennessee]. He didn't know me from Adam. Six months later, I saw him at the combine. He remembered my name, who I worked for, etc. That was the picture of Manning.

"This is the picture of Ryan Leaf: I met him during pre-game warm-ups [at Washington State]. One of his coaches introduced him to another scout and me. His hat was on backward, his shirt-tail was out, he was lollygagging around. This is an hour and a half before the game. Then he showed up at the combine at 261 pounds, and you knew the difference between these two guys was night and day - not from a physical standpoint, but from a mental and maturity standpoint."

Contrast that to quarterback Joey Harrington, taken by the Detroit Lions with the third pick this year. Harrington went 25-3 as Oregon's starter and directed 10 fourth-quarter comeback wins. He says he's eager to learn the Lions' system to compete with second-year quarterback Mike McMahon for the starting job.

"I've been in a situation where every pass, every [step of] footwork, everything you do is analyzed," Harrington said. "I'm ready for it. Plus, that kind of makes it fun, puts more pressure on it.

"If you've got the eyes of an entire city watching your every move, that's what it's all about. Sitting there in the fourth quarter with 70,000 people staring at you, that's the fun part."

Wearing down

Between 1996 and 1998, there was not a more productive running back in the NFL than the Denver Broncos' Terrell Davis. He ran for 5,296 yards and 49 touchdowns in those three seasons and helped win two Super Bowls. Four years later, he can't get back on the field, and when he does get back, he doesn't stay.

Last week, Davis, 29, underwent a second arthroscopic procedure on his left knee in six months. He endured a torn knee ligament in 1999, a stress fracture in a foot in 2000, and he had surgery on both knees last season. The result is he played in just 17 of 49 games the past three years.

By drafting Miami running back Clinton Portis in the second round last month, the Broncos are prepared to turn the page if Davis can't make it back this season.

Showing the way

Linebacker Takeo Spikes, defensive captain for the Cincinnati Bengals, voiced his displeasure when a number of veterans - among them defensive linemen Vaughn Booker and Oliver Gibson - skipped the team's voluntary workouts.

Said Spikes: "If [linebacker] Brian [Simmons] can take time coming from North Carolina and I can take time coming from Sandersville [Ga.], man, and you can't drive 10 or 15 minutes away, something's wrong."

Booker, who lives in suburban Cincinnati, was a regular after Spikes' comments.

Third-and-short

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